DiZinno: It’s time for Hildebrand to get 1 more full-time IndyCar shot

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The list of those drivers seeking to get into the Verizon IndyCar Series full-time, or find a new ride for the 2017 season, is long and mixed in terms of experience levels.

There’s that mix of young, hungry lions looking to make that step up from their time in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires or European ladder system. Then there’s the older veterans who are trying to make one more switch to get one or two more good years for them near the end of their career.

And then, in the middle, is a 28-year-old American badass driver who’s been out of the cockpit on a full-time basis for far too long, who is way too talented, and who can instantly fit in as a plug-and-play replacement for Josef Newgarden at Ed Carpenter Racing.

It’s long past time for “Captain America,” JR Hildebrand, to be back in a full-time effort in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

And it would make the most sense for ECR to continue its trajectory towards the top of the grid after its growth and development over five years to promote Hildebrand to a full-time seat.

In the last five years, with the full-time disappearance of several smaller and/or midfield teams – Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Panther Racing, HVM, Conquest Racing, Dragon Racing among others – so too have disappeared the opportunities for younger drivers to step up into IndyCar and progress further up the grid.

Hildebrand was one of those drivers who premiered with a team that is no longer on the grid, and he often overachieved. His time with Panther Racing produced a driver excellent at nearly all the elements you need to do to be successful in this sport. Between his smarts, his feedback, his pace and his relationship with partners and the media, Hildebrand was destined to become a rising star in the sport.

His first two years saw him finish 14th and 11th in the points. In 2012, Hildebrand finished ahead of Rubens Barrichello, Oriol Servia, Takuma Sato, Justin Wilson, Marco Andretti, Alex Tagliani, Carpenter, E.J. Viso, Josef Newgarden and Simona de Silvestro among full-season drivers.

The knock on Hildebrand was that he made a few too many mistakes. Obviously, there was Turn 4 at Indy in 2011… he’ll never get that moment back, but at the same point, he handled defeat in as classy a way as was possible, and rewarded by team boss John Barnes with a mint 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle SS for his efforts. Then there was St. Petersburg 2013, when he crashed into Will Power under yellow, and his early crash at the Indianapolis 500 the same year, which marked his last race with Panther.

Young drivers will always make mistakes in this business but few had Hildebrand’s pedigree coming into the sport, and so you could excuse them.

A past USF2000 champion and star in the Atlantic Championship, Hildebrand then delivered a beat down on the rest of one of the deepest Indy Lights fields on record in 2009. He won the title by nearly 100 points over a field that included 12 future IndyCar drivers, including 2016 competitors James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball, Stefan Wilson and Pippa Mann.

Since his time as a full-time driver ended midway through 2013, Hildebrand has only made seven more starts, but he’s made an impact in five of them – which is not easy to do as a part-time driver.

Hildebrand was in win contention in his second and last start with Bryan Herta Autosport at Fontana in 2013, before an engine failure ended his hopes there.

He’s banked three straight top-10 finishes in the Indianapolis 500 in an extra Ed Carpenter Racing entry, and this year marked his best win chance yet with his pace all month. He led four laps and finished sixth.

And then he’s been in contention for top-10s in both Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis road course races, which is particularly impressive when you consider he was making his first start of the year in both cases with a new crew and with one of the last two pit boxes. He’d also been out of the cockpit for nearly a calendar year on both occasions. Only mechanical gremlins and fuel issues have prevented solid results in those two races.

Where Hildebrand raised his stock even more this year was as Newgarden’s designated injury fill-in and test driver de jour throughout the year.

He tested at Road America, Iowa and Mid-Ohio and it was no coincidence that Newgarden delivered several of his best races – the Iowa win in particular – thanks to Hildebrand’s feedback and setup.

Newgarden in fact took extra time to thank Hildebrand after the Iowa win because his baseline information was what helped put the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on rails.

“I have to give a shout out to JR Hildebrand. He made it that much better,” Newgarden said at the time. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to test. But JR, I don’t think we realize how lucky we are to have someone like him at our disposal whenever we need it.

“We took a great car that we had last year that I think was a race-winning car, he made it better with his input.

“JR is so good. I mean, to me JR Hildebrand should be in a car right now. I think he should be driving full-time personally. That’s easier said than done. It takes a lot of money to put these cars on the track.

“The caliber of driver that he is, he should be driving already. He’s not a test driver. I think he’s just a great driver. So for us to have him available to us is pretty fortunate.”

It also spoke volumes of Hildebrand’s feedback that INDYCAR asked him to be one of two designated test drivers for new aero components at Mid-Ohio, because his input will help determine the next round of aero for the series.

Carpenter’s team has ascended through the IndyCar field the last few years with Newgarden at the helm and so when choosing its next driver from a full-time standpoint, there are options.

Bigger names – if available – would come in the form of joint Indianapolis 500 and series champions Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Kanaan. There’s also more experienced drivers such as Servia or Tagliani, but neither would move the needle among the fan base.

Could Carpenter opt to promote Spencer Pigot from the road course and street course races in the second car? It’s possible, but Pigot could benefit more from a more experienced teammate in a second car for his own growth or maturation. Other young guns like past Indy Lights champions Gabby Chaves and Sage Karam could work, as could Conor Daly, if he doesn’t return to Dale Coyne Racing.

But Carpenter has the perfect replacement sitting in his court already and the driver with which he could continue the team’s growth, and Hildebrand has unfinished business from his first go-’round in IndyCar with a team that didn’t provide the best working atmosphere.

It makes too much sense…

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”